The Good Enough Parent
Lessons in issues:
There is no such thing as a blameless parent. For much of the modern era, the story of becoming an adult has been told to us as one of psychological liberation: As they grow up, people will notice how many of their difficulties, especially around love and work, can be traced back to inadequacies in their childhoods. They will realise, for example, how much their low self-esteem owes to their relationship with a withholding mother, or how much of their timidity at work can be traced back to an over-anxious father. Slowly they will develop their full potential by reflecting on what happened and by untangling the past with the help of friends, diaries and, most importantly, kind and well-trained psychotherapists.
This story, though powerful, tends to miss out on a crucial stage: what happens when these victims of childhood become parents themselves. While the conversation typically revolves around the hardships suffered by vulnerable small people, relatively little is said about what these former children might do when they take on the mantle of parenthood in turn. How might they fare with the momentous responsibilities that their parents mishandled? How might they ensure that their own children do not have to suffer from another cycle of psychological mishap? How might they avoid passing on their ‘issues’?
It is helpful to be categorical and unsentimental on this score: There is no option not to pass on some of one’s issues; there is no way of parenting that does not inflict some form of psychological damage on children. The most psychotherapised person in the world will not be able to avoid generating neuroses; there is no such thing as a blameless parent. Above the door of the nursery, the most emotionally mature parent should still hang
a sign: I love you—but I will give you issues.
Once this idea is soon established, the conversation can shift. It is no longer a matter of claiming to avoid damage altogether, but of doing one’s best to mitigate it. The onus is on the parent to understand their issues in good time and to be able to give thoughtful, self-observant rejoinders to the question that every decent parent should be ready to answer long before deciding to have children: How are you mad?
Nothing insulting or unusual should be thought about this enquiry; it is a precondition of being human that we are mad in some way. However, the way our minds work can shield us from awareness of quite how and in what areas we might be mad—information that is crucial to softening the damage. In order to kick-start our awareness, we might undertake a small exercise to try to reveal for ourselves some of the many ways in which we are disturbed and likely to mess up the lives of those we adore beyond measure.
This exercise (below) is only a start; there could be much else to discover. The crucial point is to know that one has a large number of issues and that their effect is likely to be powerful.
The next step is to share the information in the least dramatic way possible with its likely victims as soon as they are in a position to understand. It is a huge drawback for a child if their parent is over-interested in promoting a facade of total sanity and psychological competence.
In the interests of maintaining troop morale, many parents will feel under pressure to put on a ‘good show’, especially in the early years, framing themselves as always sane, inevitably calm, perpetually smiley and invariably on top of things. But in order properly to assist children with their mental wellbeing, it would be far more helpful if these parents could shake off their pride and gently hint at how they were in fact less than perfectly formed. It is an enormous privilege to receive advanced knowledge of one’s parent’s neuroses from the parent themselves, especially if the information is imparted with self-deprecating humour in an unalarmed and unalarming style. Subsequently, this child won’t have to spend a few decades on the therapist’s couch trying to figure out whether and how their parent was disturbed. The issues will have been freely shared a long time before.
Parents often like to explain—and children to hear about—where a family originated: where Granddad was born, who Granny married the first time, what Dad did after finishing school and so on. To these external movements, one might think of adding a psychological layer, explaining the patterns of emotional inheritance. A child might then be able to give a friend in the playground or an interested adult a handy summary of the issues their parents were afflicted by:
Mummy’s father was quite depressed and that means she’s found it hard to trust men, but eventually Daddy came along and got her to relax, but still she’s quite independent-minded and likes to be alone for ages—and that leads them to conflicts. Daddy had a distant mother and a judgemental father (maybe that’s why he picked Mum!). It makes him pretty anxious and on a bad day prone to shouting. It also makes him a bit fussy about me and cloying and always hovering around, like he wants everything to go right for me to compensate for what went badly for him. That’s also probably why I tell him to go away a lot, quite fiercely.
The greatest available form of sanity isn’t to lack issues; it is to be willing to understand and admit to them. The more one knows them, the less likely one is to have to play them out, or encase them in a layer of denial. It is a huge source of relief to children to grow up in a family where issues are discussed with as little embarrassment as a sore back or a headache; it should be as customary to hear an adult complaining about their anxiety as about their bad toe, or about their low self-esteem as their worries about politics. Far from creating a child who will be fussy or susceptible, one will be modelling how to maintain a self-aware, relaxed, undefensive relationship to psychological difficulties. Being able to share issues belongs to a slow pattern of progress whereby humans have learnt to come to terms with their vulnerability and accept themselves with well-founded humility as only intermittently rational; our real glory lies in being able delicately to accept our own absurdity.